A letter written by executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition and longtime FIRE ally Michael Meyers was published in the Boston Phoenix this week, commenting on “Facing off over Facebook,” the article Greg and I wrote about the growing tension arising over student rights to free expression and online social networking sites.
Michael’s letter, written with trademark clarity and precision, makes the important point that radical political speech—popularly imagined to have a natural home on the grounds of our nation’s colleges—may in fact be largely forbidden on today’s campuses, a victim of our overarching contemporary emphasis on “politeness” and “civility.” In turn, therefore, the very silencing impulse that seeks to “protect” today’s students instead serves to eviscerate their right to free expression, thereby undercutting the primary means to political power and acceptance of any minority—ethnic, socioeconomic, political, religious, or otherwise.
As Michael writes:
Such wanton discretion not only gives the censor unbridled power but it threatens the freedom of minority voices in particular. Imagine the kind of sanitized campus environment it would be where such firebrand speakers as Huey P. Newton, H. Rapp Brown, Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Flo Kennedy, or Louis Farrakhan had to toe the line of acceptable and approved speech that does not offend! We never would have been allowed in the 1960s and ’70s to tout, much less shout out, “Look out whitey, black power’s gonna git your mamma.” Everything about that once fashionable and militant cry is, judged by today’s censorious standards and campus sensibilities, offensive.
Interestingly enough, Michael’s letter is preceded by a reader who writes to express his “disappoint[ment] that the writers have attempted to twist the importance of free speech into a cover for lingering classism and racism at our nation’s colleges.” Both Greg and I think that Michael’s letter provides precisely the correct answer to this charge: “The response of the free thinker is to counter ‘bad’ speech with truth, and, in the university setting truth is not pursued or attained through censorship.”